12 December 2014

Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama via the Lagunas route: riding the most classic sandy road of Bolivia

Ever since we started researching our South America bike trip, there was one route that stood out amongst cycle tourists chronicles. One where the thermometers promised to read well below -20C at night, one where cyclists reported pushing for km of thick sand, and one where blogs mentioned stiff headwinds no matter what direction you travelled into. The Sur Lipez province, in South West Bolivia, in the Potosí Department, is house to some of the harshest conditions we have encountered on our trip. And for some strange reason, it is also a magnet for adventurous cycle tourists (as well as thousands of not-so-adventurous jeep tourists). 

Cyclists who never hit dirt roads make a special diversion and go do Sur Lipez to ride the famous Laguna route. For us, after having ridden a few days in similar conditions in Chile, it required a bit of discussion before embarking on a route that promised plenty of pushing through sand. We love dirt roads, but pushing is not really our thing. So we debated whether to divert East through the warmer climates of Sucre, and down to Bolivia´s wine capital of Tarija, in the South... Once we hit Uyuni town though, we had already made up our minds - how can we not ride such a classic route, even if it involves some pushing and harsh climate? How can we miss out on those supposedly beautiful high altitude dessert landscapes? 

So, with some fresh updated information from fellow cycle tourists who had just completed the route, we loaded up of bikes with 10 days worth of food and set off to ride the classic lagunas. Our fears of speeding jeeps and rude tourists sharing the roads never materialised - in fact we found most of them (more on this on the route notes) to be courteous and generous, giving us food and water even without asking. If you, like us, have doubts about taking or not the traditional lagunas route, we hope the pictures below help you decide. Oh, and with regards to the pushing, as of November 2014, we only pushed for about 5 km on the whole route, the longest stretch just after the Hotel del Desierto.

Uyuni is certainly not the most exciting Bolivian town...flooded with tourists heading to the salares and Sur Lípez. However, the train cemetery just outside of town, is quite a thing...
Leaving Uyuni with Quique and Alicia, we made good progress on the 701 to Alota, which surprisingly, was very quiet and almost paved
So quiet that sometimes we even wondered why the put these signs up!?
As usual, in the afternoon, the winds pick up and we are on the look out for sheltered places to eat or sleep
After the first night camped by a bridge, we pressed on towards Villa Alota...
...re-stocking on calories for less than $2...
...until we reach Alota nearly at sunset.

The following day we climb to the forest of rocks right on the main 701 road...

...before turning off towards the lagunas proper and setting up camp in the windy pampa.
The next day we descended...

...To flamingo-filled Laguna Hedionda.
The views were stunning, but the skies were threatening. 

As it started to rain, we sought shelter in the restaurant by the lake, waiting to see if it would pass. 
The flamingos did not seem to mind the crap weather at all...
Eventually, with no improvement, we decide to stay the night. The restaurant owner gives us a small space to sleep indoors.
It does allow us to witness the spectacular sunset.

The weather has not improved in the morning, but we set off anyway.

We climb to 4600m, where a sudden snow/hail/thunderstorm has us briefly diving for cover.

When it was over, we made our way as fast as we could downhill, through beautiful low clouds.

We arrive at the Hotel del Desierto exhausted, cold, and hungry. The staff let us bring our food inside to eat in the warmth of the restaurant. 
We are tempted to stay the night in the hotel, but eventually muster up the courage to camp. The hotel staff offer us an under-construction building, protected from the wind, and 24 hour use of their fancy bathroom.
The following morning we woke up to yet more wind, but luckily for us, a tailwind this time...
Yet we spent the better part of the morning pushing our bikes 5km through a seemingly endless field of sand.



Calamina or serrucho (corrugations) plus sand...supposedly fat bike country nowadays, though we did okay with our 2.0 Marathon Mondial. Just put less pressure in them!
After the pusher section, we managed to get back on the bikes and kept heading South

Around lunchtime the roads improve even more, and we are joined by a couple of curious viscachas who scramble to eat any potential food leftovers...
At 5 pm we reached the famous Árbol de Piedra, and with only a handful of tourists left and the usual strong afternoon winds, we set off to find some shelter for the night
A sandy ground for the night, luckily protected from the crazy afternoon winds
The following morning is still chilly by the time we set off, despite the intense sun, so we layered up and kept going to the laguna colorada
Navigation was super easy - just follow the jeep tracks, they all go to the same place. When in doubt though, jeep drivers (more common as you head further South) are a good source of information.
After paying the hefty Bs150 per person entrance fee to the Reserva, we went round the laguna colorada, which turns out was in its reddest mode. The photo does not make justice to how surreal it was - blood red with dry salt flats, plus flamingos. Has to be seen.
Impressive colours
Leaving the laguna on its Southern side, we decided not to detour to our original plan of climbing the Uturuncu volcano - high winds and relatively uncertain weather, plus a big detour on corrugations put us off, till next time. The scenery changed once again, and the afternoon colors were in full bloom...as were the winds.
A short encounter with four Italians had us briefly worried we had entered a vortex and landed in the 80s. They confirmed that the winds were even worse up high, so our priority, once again, became to find somewhere sheltered enough to spend the night.
The wind was so strong that even a gentle gradient was impossible to cycle...so we pushed, and pushed...
At 4400 m we are lucky to find some shelter...not the greatest but the only one around. Our mountain tents are heavy and probably overkill for most of our camps, but on this occasion we are grateful to have them
At 4 am we start hearing the beeps of passing jeeps rushing up to the Sol de Mañana geyser for the sunrise...definitely not the nicest wake up call. Luckily, we arrive when they´ve all gone and have the place to ourselves. The geyser is certainly impressive, not only because of its size, but because of the noise it makes
Descending from the geiser back to the road we noticed that the "Reserva Natural" also serves as a mine - here´s some conflict of interest we thought... (photo taken and edited by Quique Morales)
After a climb to 4950 m, and a chilly and windy descent, we arrived in Laguna Chalviri, another obligatory stop for cycle tourists. The thermals (Bs 3) are simply amazing and after many days without a shower a very welcome sight...We had the pool to ourselves as most jeeps arrive in the morning.
We spent the night in the restaurant/refugio next to the thermals, where incredible owners Fructuosa and Eusebio feed us (dinner and breakfast, plus all jeep tourists leftovers for Bs 17 or $2!!!) and kindly let us spend the night indoors. Here we also meet French cyclist Julien and Germans Jasmin and Tim (left to right, Lucy, Tim, Eusebio, Julien, Alberto, Fructuosa, and Quique)
The jeep tourists "enjoying" the thermals in the morning...not to worry if you are a cyclists, as they´re gone by 10 am on their busy schedules.
With the Frenchie in tow, we make progress to the last stop of the lagunas route - the lagunas blanca and verde (photo taken and edited by Quique Morales)

Another 4700 m pass separates us from the lagunas, and the scenery. This section, unfortunately, is busy with idiotic and suicidal jeep drivers returning to Uyuni thinking they´re riding the Dakar, so must be taken with extreme care.
The desierto de Dalí is an strange rock formation on the way to the lagunas verde and blanca
To the West more nice formations accompany us on our climb
After topping up, a quick descent follows to the lagunas. The perfectly shaped volcán  Licancabur (5920 m) makes an appearance.
Going round the laguna blanca (which wasn´t blanca at all when we cycle it) we hit the laguna verde...which was a bit more green than expected. Licancabur oversees the view. On the other side of it awaits another world...Chile!
Here is pretty much where our lagunas route finishes. Lucy wished she had a beard to protect her from the elements...
After a comfy night in the old, abandoned refugio right by the laguna blanca, we wake up to see a partly frozen laguna
Having cleared the Bolivian migración without incident (despite rumors that the officials occasionally try to charge an exit fee), we enjoyed the nice packed dirt road on the Chilean side. Julien (pictured) did all the lagunas route on a 700C bike, with skinny tyres, and a BOB trailer, without pushing much...who neeeds trendy fat tires!
On the main road from Paso Jama we were reunited with pavement and took the silly picture we all take these days...

And descended to Chile.

Once in Chile, we descended quickly on the boring paved road (a straight line for 2000 m of vertical drop). Despite Chile being more developed that other South American countries, it struck us to see these sights. The Chilean side of Licancabur is full of land mines!!!
The oasis of San Pedro de Atacama is the second most visited place in Chile, only after Torres del Paine in Patagonia. We stayed outside of town and enjoyed the chance to eat things like olives and goat cheese. Oh, and 1.5L of decent wines for $2.50. Wine is pretty much the cheapest thing one can find in Chile actually.

San Pedro is famous for its "cute" adobe houses. It´s got a bit of a hippie-with-a-credit-card vibe.

And you can find things like this...a UV traffic light. Only 50 km away from the Bolivian border.
Route notes and comments:

We used the Tour.tk guide for SouthWest Bolivia which has all the information you need to tackle this route. Note that it hasn´t been updated in recent years, and that, for example, all the villages shown from Uyuni to Villa Alota have now shops and water. The distances remain spot-on, and all the water points on the lagunas route are still current.

There´s a lot of ranting amongst cycle tourists about jeep drivers and tourists. In our experience, the jeep traffic as of mid to late November 2014 was not bothersome at all, and you´ll only see them at certain times a day. The drivers were always helfpul, and the tourists polite. The only section we really disliked was the one from Chalviri to Lagunas Blanca and Verde, where the jeep drivers seemed to be racing back home to Uyuni, without tourists, and felt dangerous at times. This traffic was concentrated around 7-11am. Jeep tourisms has some advantages though: the industry has allowed some refugios to be built, which can provide water and food when needed. We rode the route carrying 10 days of food from Uyuni (but can be done carrying much less) and you only need to carry two days worth of water at any time, which simplifies things a lot.

Other route notes from our trip are as follows:

- Uyuni to Villa Alota: the road is now in great condition, not paved but it felt like it. Really hard-packed dirt and very fast to ride on.
- Villa Alota to Laguna Hedionda: we took a little diversion a few km out of Villa Alota, and joined at Hedionda. There are other routes that avoid Hedionda, but we found Hedionda one of the most scenic parts of the route. Jeep traffic is relatively low here. The Hotel in Hedionda is pricey, but they will fill your water (it´s slightly saline though) and will let you sleep on the restaurant floor for free, if asked - they assured us the provide a charity service for cyclists!
- Hedionda to Lagunas Verde and Blanca: we rode the classic route all the way. The tour.tk guide is all you need. There´s a Bs150 fee payable to enter the reserva at the Laguna Colorada. Unfortunately this fee does not seem to provide anything to the tourist - not even usable toilets that aren´t private, rubbish bins, or indications, so it´s money that goes straight to someone´s pocket or not at all used in the reserva. In Laguna Chalviri you can probably stay for free at one of the two restaurants next to it. The one closest to you as you get there is the one we chose, and was superb in every way. Dinner costs Bs12 (soup and a healthy serving of meat), breakfast Bs5 (pankakes and coffee). We didn´t use any other refugios, so can´t comment on their service, though prices seemed to be at least double than those we payed at Chalviri.

In Lagunas Blancas and Verde we slept in the old refugio, next to the Blanca, which now appears to be semi-abandoned.

Eventually, there will be a new Chilean migración opened that will allow you to cross straight into Argentina (via Chile´s Paso Jama) from the Bolivian border, without descending to San Pedro. However, as of today, there´s no alternative but to get your entry stamp in San Pedro.

For planning purposes  here  is how our days panned out:
Day 1: Uyuni to Camp by Bridge over Rio Grande (64 km, moving time 4h)
Day 2: Camp by Bridge to Villa Alota (86km, moving time 6h)
Day 3: Villa Alora to unsheltered pampa camp (41km, moving time 5h)
Day 4: Pampa camp to Laguna Hedionda (22km, moving time 2h30)
Day 5: Hedionda to Hotel del Desierto (39km, moving time 5h30)
Day 6: Hotel del Desierto to Arbol de Peidra (30km, moving time 4h)
Day 7: Arbol de Piedra to rock pile camp on climb to Sol de Mañana (36km, moving time 4h30)
Day 8: Rock pile camp to Laguna Chalviri (40km, moving time 4h30)
Day 9: Chalviri to Laguna Blanca (44km, moving time 5h)
Day 10: Laguna Blanca to San Pedro de Atacama (58km, moving time 3h30)

3 comments:

  1. Seguro que por allí hay buena cama y ducha caliente para una pija como yo???

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  2. Stunning photos! I can only imagine how spectacular it must have been in person (though I have been to the "train cemetery", which was just weird).

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  3. Mi maxima admiración. Pase viajando por las ultimas fotos... termas, flamencos, lagos etc. cuando viajaba con la mochila por sudamerica, increíbles y salvajes lugares pero mas increíble que lo hayáis hecho en bicicleta, nada facil...demasiada altitud y alejado.
    Enorabuena y admirable!

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